Ugly Americans in Iraq
Editor?s note: The following is an oral history of a U.S. soldier who served with the Army?s Special Forces during the allied occupation of Iraq in 2003 and 2004, as told to journalist Nir Rosen.
It is a companion piece to Rosen?s essay ?The Occupation of Iraqi Hearts and Minds,? which describes his experiences as an American reporter who sometimes passed as a Middle Easterner during the occupation.
The oral history is composed almost entirely of e-mail correspondences that Rosen received from the soldier, who wished to remain anonymous.
About the soldier: He served in Iraq during 2003 and 2004 as part of a Special Forces unit whose job, as he told Rosen, was to ?hunt enemies and destroy their networks? –to go after ?former masterminds and leaders of Saddam?s Baath Party.? His targets soon morphed into members of ?Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia? and insurgents — ?a broad term that extended to criminals, influential gangs, bomb-making masterminds and generally pissed-off Arabs across the Sunni Triangle laid off by CPA Order #2–which dismissed all Baath Party members.?
The soldier left the Army in May 2005 but can be recalled in case of a ?national emergency.? He joked to Rosen that ?the day we invade Iran or North Korea is the day that I become a Canadian citizen.?
Rosen met the soldier in Washington, D.C., during the spring of 2006 and struck up a friendship, ?feeling a bond,? in Rosen?s words, ?that all who have served in Iraq in some way must feel.?
About the soldier?s wish to remain anonymous, he wrote the following to Rosen:
If my friends from the army even knew I was corresponding with a journalist, I?d probably lose a lot of respect. I am bound by legal contract and personal loyalty to protect the operational security (OPSEC) of my former unit. Because of the sensitivity of their work, their insane burden in Iraq (I still have friends in the military), and the oath of my contract, it is illegal for me to discuss many things — units we work with, equipment, locations, technology, and activity within the country, etc. Furthermore, as I was raised in the community of special operations, I am skeptical almost to the point of paranoia about talking to anyone about Iraq outside of my former unit and family. There is a good reason for this — namely: Loose lips sink ships.
Nir Rosen’s account of the soldier’s oral history begins below.
My friend wanted to begin his recounting of his time in Iraq by discussing ?the character of the American men fighting this war.? He joked that ?it might be a shock to some of the architects of this war that our fighters don?t read magazines like The Weekly Standard or The New Republic or give a rat?s ass about where our occupation in Iraq is headed.? He continued: ?The reason most of them signed up for service (me included) was to get some action, destroy Al Qaeda and come home with a body count to brag about at a local bar. Who gives a fuck about the rest? I think it can be best summed up in a conversation I overheard at my recruitment station. When one kid was asked why he joined the infantry, he didn?t have any doubts: ?I enlisted to kill towelheads.?
“The very nature of special operations and the infantry is to kill and/or capture dangerous people, destroy shit and prevent attacks. Creating rapport with the local population isn?t really part of the vocabulary — especially if the local population is as insanely dangerous as Iraq. In the eyes of many fellow soldiers who signed up because of 9/11, and because of the Bush administration?s portrayal of Iraq as part of the ?war on terror,? many of the guys fully believed that they were in a hunt [for] men responsible for the blood bath in lower Manhattan.? My friend added that regardless of where soldiers are, ?be that a foreign country or a local bar in a military town, they usually wear out their welcome anywhere they go — they?ve perfected the skill.?
My friend stressed that ?our officers took extra special care to fully explain the Rules of Engagement (ROE) in formal briefings to men in my company, and over the course of 140 missions they practiced professional restraint with their actions. But there is also a golden explicit rule with everything you do in war: Make sure that your ass comes home alive. This necessitates aggressive infantry platoon behavior on the part of the U.S. military that ultimately results in something quite the opposite of our stated goals: ?building democracy? and winning ?hearts and minds.? While we were largely successful in hunting the men we were pursuing, my personal impression was that we probably created two times more insurgents than we caught, not to mention the communities we greatly angered with our raids. Our actions were a direct contribution to, as [allied commander] Gen. George Casey said in September 2005, an occupation that is ?fueling the insurgency.? ?
He told me a story about his platoon?s return to the U.S. after its second deployment to Iraq, when its members went to see the premiere of the film ?Team America.? Made by the creators of television?s ?South Park,? ?Team America? was a comical marionette action flick about a jingoistic fire team whose utter recklessness was matched by their righteous yahoo attitude that America must preserve the very fabric of civilization. No film has more accurately depicted our presence in Iraq; it was a looking glass and it instantly became a platoon favorite. There is a classic scene in the movie where Team America?s overbearing red, white and blue helicopter lands on top of a bazaar in the Middle East, crushing an Arab?s cashew stand. The side of the helicopter read: ?We Protect, We Serve, We Care.? That scene hit so close to home, it was scary. Later in the movie, in a high-speed chase against terrorists, a missile gets misfired and destroys the Sphinx (in Egypt). ?The movie theater, packed with guys from my platoon, was howling with laughter. We even sarcastically recited lines from the theme songs ?Freedom Isn?t Free? and ?America, Fuck Yeah? before and after missions on our third tour in the winter of 2005. By then the disconnect between the lofty rhetoric of our leaders and the crap we dealt with on the ground couldn?t have been greater. The mentality of soldiers in Iraq is compounded by a group of factors — wrecked relationships, senselessly drawn-out deployments, sex/alcohol deprivation, and getting mortared on a nightly basis, to name a few.? He added that ?Iraq is a scary fucking place. Every hard-hitting thing we did there was due in large part to our fear of that place.?
My friend explained that over the course of his three deployments to Iraq he discovered what he described as a ?breakthrough method of communicating in foreign languages. It was so cutting-edge that Rosetta Stone [the language-training program] doesn?t even know about it. It goes something like this: The louder you yell at an Arab in English, the more the Arab will understand you. I?ve seen this done by my brothers in arms on a hundred-plus occasions. Hell, even I did it. And let me be the first to exclaim that it works wonders. The language barrier has done irreversible damage to our entire occupation.
“On the rare occasions that we?ve had men who speak the language with us, it has yielded key information — in one case it almost resulted in the capture of a high-value target. I can?t begin to imagine the kind of miscommunication damage we could have avoided had we had interpreters during two of our three deployments. Nothing adds to the disconnect between U.S. soldiers and the Iraqi populace like absolute miscommunication. We are astronauts and they are Martians, plain and simple. The average soldier looks like Buzz Aldrin, loaded with enough high-tech gear to land him on the set of a sci-fi flick. Every night we descend unexpectedly upon Mars from helicopters. Under the cover of darkness we prowl across mud-hut villages on the search for wanted Martians that communicate with each other in weird, harsh sounds. As a matter of fact, the glow on our eyes created from our night observation devices earned us a nickname by Sunni Arabs across Al Anbar; they called us the ?men with green eyes.? ?
Next Page: “His mom cried and pleaded with us that her son was innocent (at least that?s what I thought she said — none of us had an Arabic vocabulary besides ?Shut up? ?Stop or I?ll shoot? and ?Get the fuck out of my face?). ”
My friend described a ?highly planned mission that utilized many military assets ? over 200 special forces went on a head hunt against a high-value target in the heart of Al Anbar.? The mission occurred at 1 p.m. on a Friday, prayer time in the Muslim world. ?What essentially transpired was the seizure of two central mosques right in the middle of prayer time — our target was believed to be in one of the mosques. Two other platoons were in charge of taking over three surrounding blocks of families ?sympathetic? to the insurgency. When we rolled up to the central mosque, you could see hundreds of pairs of shoes and sandals lined out by the front door. By the time my platoon had raided a local house, which including the standard demolition of a locked gate door with a linear charge, we launched into the family?s two-story house with three fire teams. Our entrance included accidentally stepping all over the family?s freshly prepared lunch of salad and kabobs — Arabs typically eat on the floor. After kicking down every door, busting open every cabinet and flipping over every mattress, unearthing every prayer rug and breaking every lock in the house in the search for weapons and bombs, we proceeded to detain a 15-old-kid (?male of active age,? i.e. possible insurgent) and tossed him in our Humvee while his mom cried and pleaded with us that he was innocent (at least that?s what I thought she said — none of us had an Arabic vocabulary besides ?Shut up? ?Stop or I?ll shoot? and ?Get the fuck out of my face?).
“It required a unique form of telepathic genius to understand the people we were liberating if you didn?t understand Arabic, and none of us possessed that skill. After our block was pacified, we linked up down the road at the central mosque. By that point another platoon had very clearly disrupted prayer service, as testified by hundred of Sunni Arab men standing on the front landing of the mosque giving us what I could only refer to as the ?Arab look of death.? Another team herded a line of stumbling blindfolded and handcuffed men like cattle into one of our vehicles. By that time at least 20 of us had our weapons pointed at the Muslim congregation, not taking any chances. A fire team across the road was jumping over a nearby wall and breaking into a backyard shed. Two F-16s flew in figure eights overhead, buzzing the city and reminding any cavalier haji (our affectionate term for Arab citizen) that day to think twice before they act.
“We detained some 15 men, including the target?s brother (the main target was apparently a no-show that day). We rolled out staring at a thoroughly humiliated community on their most sacred day. Their home doors blown off their hinges, some of their teenage children stolen by Kafirs, and in the house that I raided, a hard-earned lunch kicked across the dirty floor. We would later return to the same neighborhood three times during that deployment, looking for the same guy. Each time, doors were blown off their recently repaired hinges, house glass was broken, car tires were slashed, the few interior possessions found in the houses were thrown around, damaged and destroyed. But still, we couldn?t find the guy we were looking for. We would go on to conduct a follow-on mission on that specific day, raiding a building reported to house ‘eight hard-core Syrian fighters.’ We blew down the door with electrical charging tape to find a broken Kawasaki dirt bike. We also went down the road to an elementary school (school was out that day) that was reported to be an arms cache for the insurgency, and our orders were to raid the entire building. After breaking into one room only to find school books, one of our officers ? called back the mission and decided any further damage to the school was folly, given the apparent effort to win ?hearts and minds? across Iraq.?
Next Page: “I probably wouldn?t want to tell him the honest truth: ?Sir, after you leave here, I?m sorry, but I have no fucking idea what?s going to happen to you.? “ One summer evening my friend?s unit targeted a sheik who was reportedly a mastermind of the resistance. The sheik lived in a mansion behind a tire store, my friend recalled. ?He reportedly had the material and spiritual support of the surrounding area. Thus, the objective of our mission would be not just to capture the sheik, but to capture every male in the entire neighborhood for intelligence about the sheik. I was in the fire team whose objective was to raid the house next door to the sheik?s. Approaching the house, we tried to enter in text-book fashion — using something called the ?hooligan tool? to break the lock on the front door.
“After two unsuccessful tries, we used a steel rammer, which did nothing but break the glass on the door. Then we went with Plan C — we turned the door handle on the door next to the one we were trying to break. The door was unlocked. Our two teams then flowed in, full of yelling to add to the shock value of our dynamic entry. ?Get the fuck down,? ?Shut the fuck up,? ?Don?t move,? etc. Of the four rooms in the house, two were full of women and children, the other a kitchen, and the fourth, a middle-aged man and a senior citizen. Three of our men rushed the man while the old man on an oxygen tank starting hitting a couple of us with his cane. The old man was quickly dropped to the floor, next to his oxygen tank, while we zip-tied his arms and legs. This wasn?t out of personal preference, but we were trying to control the situation. I walked out the blindfolded middle-aged man, who was weak and fell to his knees, trembling and mortified. His wife and two daughters were crying hysterically. I can only guess that they thought I was going to execute him. I wish I knew enough Arabic to tell him that things would be OK if he was innocent — but honestly, why should I be confident enough to say that? Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been thrown in detention facilities across the country with incompetent oversight and filtering processes. Even if I did know Arabic, I probably wouldn?t want to tell him the honest truth: ?Sir, after you leave here, I?m sorry, but I have no fucking idea what?s going to happen to you.?
“After consolidating the detainees we got the orders to clear the surrounding structures. After running with two fire teams across a typical Iraqi backyard farm, we used a shot gun to blast open the door lock. Unbeknownst to us, we were about to score a major intelligence victory in the war on terror: a den of 40 smelly goats. We immediately took one casualty on that raid — a goat got hit in the ass with one of the buckshots. If our raid on 20 homes wasn?t yet successful in waking up everyone in the neighborhood, then that pissed-off goat sure did the job. We had to seek cover on the rear side of the building as another team ?leapfrogged? to an adjacent house. In all of our distraction, the goats poured out of their den. When we eventually left the objective, I saw the group of goats wandering down the main highway that we had taken on our way to the sheik?s crib. We just had conducted a raid of liberation. I was reminded of one of Gen. [Anthony] Zinni?s early warnings about Iraq: ?There are congressmen today who want to fund the Iraqi Liberation Act, and let some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London gin up an expedition. We?ll equip a thousand fighters and arm them with 97 million dollars? worth of AK-47s and insert them into Iraq. And what will we have? A Bay of Goats, most likely.? Just add 130,000 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars to the equation and the statement still stands.
“Acting on intelligence and orders beyond our control, we succeeded that night in sending a father of four off to who knows where, losing his livestock livelihood that barely made ends meet, detaining five others guilty of living in that neighborhood and finding no sheik. Before departing, I remember a wild dog staring at me in the eye as he consumed the flesh of a fellow dead dog. Our presence didn?t seem to faze him. On the way back from this glorious mission, we came onto an unexpected surprise. To our great amusement, in the middle of desert nowhere (the closest village was eight miles away), we found two men engaged in passionate homosexual intercourse on top a sand dune. I don?t think they were expecting any extra company. I guess nowhere was safe in Al Anbar from the U.S. occupation.?
My friend quipped that ?infantry soldiers have never been known for their raw talent in mathematics.? Therefore the explosives charges made by soldiers sometimes exceed the bare minimum necessary to blow off a door handle. ?In one case,? he told me, ?I watched a charge succeed in blowing a door five feet across a living room. Being as the suspect was about to open the door after hearing the ruckus on his doorstep, he went airborne as well. And the steel door landed on top of him. Like in a scene out of the movie ?Heat,? blood and puss flowed down both of his ears on the trip back to base.?
Next Page: ?Without much doubt in my mind, if I were an Iraqi under the U.S. occupation, I?d be an insurgent.? During the summer, my friend?s unit temporarily inhabited one of Uday Hussein?s palaces on the Tigris River. ?It was fully furnished with gold-leaf furniture,? he said, ?working bidets and a nice swimming pool. As the story goes, he had women walk in circles by the pool and he chose which one to rape for the evening. We just used the pool to forget about the fact that we were in Iraq. That summer our tanning sessions by the pool were often interrupted by mortar attacks on our compound. Apparently the chain of command threatened a scorched-earth policy on the surrounding farm communities if they didn?t put a stop to whoever was doing it. We also did our part by directing warning shots at local fishermen floating slowly down the Tigris River and staring at the compound. If they didn?t get the point the first time, we shot closer to their boat. They would get the message and start rowing like Vikings on speed until they were out of our eyesight. It was only in our self-interest to keep all unwanted activity away from our bases. By the summer of 2004, all trust had fully dissipated.?
My friend was rare in that he had somehow overcome the necessary brainwashing soldiers undergo and was able to critically assess his role in Iraq. ?In hindsight,? he said, ?I have often asked myself what my reaction would be like if I were on the opposite end of this equation. After years of living under a harsh dictatorship, 150,000 soldiers of Sharia show up and offload into Georgetown from boats on the Potomac River after shelling the Capitol. They have a simple mission, they say: transplanting Islamic enlightenment in the decadent land of Kafir. They take over the D.C. Mall and throw a wall around the Smithsonian buildings; they call it the ‘Halal Zone.’ The White House becomes the embassy of Iraq. Some asshole like John Walker Lindh (Ahmed Chalabi), who has lived in the Middle East while the U.S. suffered under dictatorship, is Iraq?s favorite child for taking over the peacock throne of the U.S. My house gets raided and my mother patted down by hygiene-deficient Wahhabis, so I go to Georgetown to force the humiliation off my mind. A group of wirey majahedin show up at Haagen Daaz while I?m enjoying a cone of cookies and cream — a rare moment of bliss in a country going to shit — and grab the owners while taking their ice cream. I return to my home, after walking through one foot of raw sewage water, to turn on the radio and hear the Arab ?viceroy? declare in a fatwa that all Christian values should be erased from our governing culture. Meanwhile my dad is laid off from his paycheck for the crime of serving in the U.S. Army to provide for his struggling family.? My friend concluded that ?without much doubt in my mind, if I were an Iraqi under the U.S. occupation, I?d be an insurgent.?
I sympathized with what must have been his painful realization that he had inadvertently committed crimes. ?All the way up to my third deployment I was an avid reader of a lot of foolish writing on the war,? he said. ?I believed in the mission because I had to — after all, what soldier wants to die for an unworthy cause? I wanted to believe in the propaganda and I willfully avoided things that harshly rubbed against my hope that we were sacrificing for a good cause. When you put your life on the line every night, you don?t have the luxury to be skeptical or even critical. In certain ways, I feel embarrassed about my belief that this was once a noble mission, but I have the honesty to admit that I was wrong. I deployed to this war with many great assumptions about our national leadership: I assumed that the WMD intelligence case wasn?t a cherry-picked house of cards, I assumed we had a plan for the aftermath of the invasion, I assumed our leaders had a greater understanding of the character of Iraq outside the mouths of Ahmed Chalabi and Kana Makiya. I assumed, I assumed, I assumed.?
?As a soldier trained exclusively to fight, destroy and capture,? my friend said, ?I was no more different than any of the rest of the men in my platoon who viewed Iraq as a broken country, loaded with assassins and inhospitable people. Hardly any of us spoke Arabic, which added to the dehumanization of the people (or should I say, ?targets?) that we hunted and disrupted on a nightly basis; during my time there we conducted over 140 missions. We were always decent to the men we captured, but a raid by definition can never be a humanitarian act. I could never escape the impression from our heavy-handed insertions into hundreds of family homes that our presence only fueled more and more hatred. Every night we returned to base, the adrenaline rush faded and everything in hindsight looked like a black comedy. You couldn?t escape the fact that our actions only fueled the insurgency. For every insurgent or jihadist we caught, we created two times as many future fighters. And that is the tragedy — good men inadvertently pissing off an entire population. As our fearless leaders walked into this debacle without a plan, you can rest assured that few at the top ever considered the historical meaning of occupation to Arab civilization. Also, the White House fixation on figureheads like Zarqawi, which bolstered the Al Qaeda/Iraq smokescreen, ensured that our myopic obsession with foreign fighters blinded us to the understanding that 90% of the insurgency was home-grown.?